Imagine a mountain ridge with lush streams and forests overlooking a peaceful valley. Hear the trees creak, the birds chirp, and the wind rush through branches, whispering reminders of the solidity and dignity of the natural world and the power of the earth as a sheltering community. Now consider that throughout West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, an extension of conventional strip mining techniques called mountaintop removal mining has turned the tops of more than five hundred mountains in Appalachia into barren moonscapes. The lush forests are replaced by crushed rock, dust, rubble, and gashes.
Coal companies systematically raze the entire mountainside by ripping trees from the ground, clearing the brush with huge tractors, setting what is left on fire, burying explosives in deep holes, and then blowing the mountaintop to pieces. Then machines called draglines—some the size of an entire city block—push rock and dirt into the streams and valleys that are nearby, burying these waterways. The explosives can blast as much as eight hundred to one thousand feet off the tops of mountains in order to reach the thin coal seams buried below.1 The destructive impacts of this practice on the environment are too numerous to discuss in full, but they include burying vital headwaters, dispersing toxic chemicals downstream, obliterating locales of great biodiversity, destroying 1.4 million acres of Appalachian forests, killing topsoil, and destroying or damaging ecosystems in ways that kill fish, birds, and other aquatic species.
This wanton destruction of mountaintop ecosystems should be seen for what it truly is: the extermination of many interdependent populations of living and nonliving beings best called an ecocide. As spiritual and ethical persons, I believe we must consider the violence against the mountains, the trees, the waters, the soil, and the creatures who inhabit these environments as well as the impact of these acts of violence on our own human spiritual well-being.
To that end, ecospirituality bears witness to the fact that our own sense of goodness and care, as well as our sense of vitality and affirmation of existence, stems from our interdependent and communicative coexistence with the natural world. An important ecospiritual resource is Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who calls us to look beyond the practical or aesthetic value of nature and to see how the natural world is vital to a depth of meaning, identity, and spiritual realization for human beings. Merleau-Ponty has especially become known for his later writings about the “flesh of the world,” which is a way of refiguring embodiment that breaks with thousands of years of mind-body dualism and the adversarial stance it writes into the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Although his articulation of the flesh of the world can easily be misunderstood as a sort of romanticism—the “becoming one” with other humans, creatures, and the natural world—it is rather a carefully articulated sense of being grounded in our perceptual and sensual opening to the world.
Merleau-Ponty takes into account the hard facts of science and other empirical disciplines, but he also sees the deeper import of these facts. By doing this, these deeper senses of the empirical world open us to another logic of what I have called “inclusive ambiguity,” where the lines between humans and other humans or between humans and the natural world are distinct yet overlap.2 Instead of the traditional stockpile of dichotomies used to philosophically describe existence—self versus other, nature versus culture, male versus female, reason versus emotion, human being versus the natural world—we have to see both separate identities and interdependence at once. Merleau-Ponty’s sense of embodiment accounts for the ways in which our perceptual access to the world of humanity is not separable on an immediate experiential level from affective, imaginative, intuitive, visceral, kinesthetic, gestural, memorial, and ideational levels of apprehending the world. He also finds within perception what we might call a feedback loop, such that we take into our perceptions a sense of belonging to the world, a belonging that the world indirectly expresses through our perception. The world has its own energies and meanings that give us a deeper sense of what the world means, but can only be understood in this indirect manner. This notion that perception always contains within its sense a perspective on the perceiver as if perceived and expressed by what is perceived is called “reversibility” by Merleau-Ponty.3 For example, we feel our smallness when perceiving the mountaintop, as if we are seen from the perspective of its vastness. He finds this idea expressed in artists’ and aboriginal and nondominant cultures’ continued assertions that the world spoke in other nonhuman ways. Cézanne, for example, reported that Mont Sainte-Victoire “painted itself through me” for decades; Paul Valéry claimed that in writing his poetry, he was merely listening to the words given to him by the forests around him.4 This meant for Merleau-Ponty that bodily apprehension and expression are not delimited by the outline of the so-called physical or objective body. Instead, Merleau-Ponty continually likened this process of apprehension to a “fission”—a movement into the depths of the world and the cosmos that continually returns to the perceiver and then feeds back into an ongoing becoming with the world.5 Furthermore, the perceiving agency is not lodged within a bodily being of a different sort of substance than the things of the world that it perceives, as René Descartes or Plato claimed, but it is of their ilk. We see because we are seen, and we touch because we are touched by others—by other creatures and by “the ten thousand things” of the world.6 For Merleau-Ponty, this does not mean we melt into a “oneness” in which individual difference in identity is lost. Each unique being may be part of a to-and-fro interwoven stream of sense, yet the unique sense of each of the myriad beings is still present. Rather than a loss of boundaries in a mystical oneness, Merleau-Ponty speaks of a back-and-forth flow that preserves uniqueness of all but also opens all to what I express as a felt solidarity.
The notion that the body is a way of being inserted into a larger circulation of sense and energy is echoed by Aldo Leopold, who writes in A Sand County Almanac that “each species, including ourselves, is a link in many chains,” that all beings are “living channels of energy,” and that these channels even extend beyond living creatures—“land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals,” and “waters, like soil, are part of the energy circuit.”7 In this way, Leopold suggests that each species is distinct yet interdependent, an illustration of the concept of not-one-not-two that has elsewhere been expressed by many feminist thinkers, aboriginal cultures, and contemporary science.8 Leopold indicates that each species is distinct yet interdependent. We are constantly becoming who we are, Leopold and Merleau-Ponty suggest, only through our interactions with and synthesis of the world around us.
More particularly, Merleau-Ponty describes three parts to this continual back-and-forth perceptual circuit. First, each perceptual object has a “face” with which we are in dialogue.9 Second, within each instance of perception, there is a depth of time and a coming-forth-from-the-past that has never been until that moment of encounter. Merleau-Ponty suggests that this moment contains an “immemorial time” necessary for our spiritual life and identity.10 And third, human transcendence is actually better understood as diving into the depths of our embodied rootedness on this planet. Once we have understood that the reification of human being and embodiment obscures who we are, by making it appear as though we are separate static objects merely arrayed side by side, and we instead see that the ongoing process of perception moves through the surrounding world and back to itself, then we come to see human being as an unfolding—a becoming. We also begin to see human being as fragilely dependent upon how we treat the world, since we are part of it inescapably.
At the beginning of the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty states that to replace our abstract and distorting representations of the world, philosophy would have to “restore to things their physiognomy.”11 Just as a person’s facial expression registers within us on an immediate, sensual level, what we perceive has a certain look to it, or as Merleau-Ponty phrases it, there is “the physiognomic character of the data.”12 Merleau-Ponty says that we recognize this expression, like a face, not from any specific details but from its overall impression, as the “sensible world [is] full of gaps, ellipses, allusions.”13 This impression then draws us into the perceived being, deepening the sense of a felt relationship between us. Thus, both the objects around us and the physical space we inhabit have ways of being, of unfolding in their own manner, that are like “behaviors” or gestures to us, communicating to us their ways of being. Merleau-Ponty calls these “styles” of becoming whose horizons we enter into with our bodies through perception’s depths of feeling, emotions, imagination, memory, and intuition. We do not fully grasp the objects and spaces of the world; rather, gaps and obscurities draw us forward in meaning’s ongoing discovery, pulling us into their space and fleshing out what it means to be together with that other being. This entering into the perceptual encounter with a person or an object yields a certain sustenance without which our senses would lack “energy” and their full meaning.14
In practice, this means that when we encounter a mountaintop that has been reduced to rubble, toxic chemicals, and dust, we have lost the opportunity to enter the thriving web of lives that had formerly spoken to us and drawn us into their horizon. The richness of meaning of these varied lives and ecosystems—the mountaintop forests, the streams, the community of creatures—would have become a part of us as perceivers, but that possibility is now lost. The dignity and solidity of the mountaintop face that might have given us some of its strength and durability of spirit in our back-and-forth communion with it (this is what Merleau-Ponty calls perception) is gone.
Mountaintop removal mining also strips us of our memory. If perception means entering in the world’s sense and then being returned to ourselves in a never-ending transformation or becoming, part of what is returned to us from the world is its vast history, a past that outstrips our personal sense of time and that “belongs to a mythical time, to the time before time.”15 As we perceive our world, we may not consciously or deliberately recollect this time. Rather, it is an ongoing felt sense of co-presence within things as they are perceived, especially within the natural world and its long history of development that is wound into our own sense of time on this planet, enfolded within a larger drama of which we are but a small part. As Merleau-Ponty declares, “We base our memory on the world’s vast Memory.”16
Moreover, time is not a linear sequence of discrete instants that the mind has to meld together as it has often been philosophically and culturally represented but a nonlinear and encompassing field that we find ourselves within through perception. When we look out at, say, a mountaintop, Merleau-Ponty says, “the visible landscape under my eyes is not exterior to, and bound synthetically to . . . other moments of time and past, but has them really behind itself in simultaneity, inside of itself, and not it and they side by side ‘in’ time.”17 The landscape’s perceptual sense is immediately given to us with a felt sense of its belonging to a vast history that is not really gone but still present, as well as a feeling of our belonging that is key to our own sense of stability, dignity, and immersion within a dynamically creative and ancient community.
This brings us to consider how Merleau-Ponty’s thought recasts the idea of spiritual transcendence that has been dominant in many religious and cultural traditions. Such transcendence typically entails a movement into a realm of spirit that is beyond the earthly self, enmeshed as it is with the natural world of the planet. This realm is often characterized as a space of pure light or love, a home for the resonant essence within us whose home is beyond the self-interested desires of the bodily state. In this spiritual beyond, we are said to dwell in a more fulfilling and beneficent mode of being, as the guidance of this distant realm separates us from the greedy behavior of this planet and cultivates through distance a saintlier, disinterested compassion. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, however, allows us to see passion for this planet as at the heart of perception, and this passion, if inhabited fully and artfully, carries us beyond any egoistic self-enclosure, pushing us to experience immediately our shared copresence or interweavement with all other living and nonliving beings.
We are of the flesh of the world, and its depths release us into a transformative communing and communication in which the being of others is inseparable—although distinct—from our own. This embodied sense of interweavement with the planet, whether with other humans or the natural world, presents a more primal sense of ethics than the rules and standards of most traditional ethical codes.18 Before one can be called upon to follow one’s obligations to others, one has to recognize and feel them to be beings that one cares about. One must be able to experience their perspective to understand them. Although Merleau-Ponty’s sense of this overlap of being with others and the natural world is always incomplete and in process, it is an immediate experience of felt solidarity.
Galen Johnson, a leading Merleau-Ponty scholar, has suggested that it might be more apt to call Merleau-Ponty’s idea of transcendence a “transdecendence.”19 Johnson means that ethical behavior is made possible by the overcoming of self-enclosure rather than by reaching some higher spiritual plane. Entering into the perceived depths of sense of the specific beings with whom we are related on this earthly and contingent plane makes such an overcoming possible. Johnson suggests that Merleau-Ponty’s spirituality is found “in the faces, bodies, and lives of those who are most vulnerable: children, the poor, the ragged, the homeless, the sick—and also in landscapes, seascapes, mountains, valleys, and canyons where there lives a sublime stillness and wonder.”20 We thus go beyond ourselves and enter into relationships of care that are the realization of spirit by being drawn through the emotional, imaginative, and kinesthetic dimensions of the perceiving body. The immediate enmeshment and overlap with the beings of this planet is a felt solidarity that leads us to want to care for other beings as a care for our shared being.
This idea of the natural world as a copresence on this planet is becoming recognized in several global legal decisions about the rights of landscapes and parts of them. In several recent legal decisions, the rationale for the granting of rights to parts of the environment seems to echo Merleau-Ponty’s perspective on our embodied interweaving with the beings of the natural world. On March 20, 2017, for example, an Indian court recognized the Ganges and Yamuna rivers as entitled to protection and respect of their rights as “living entities” that could no longer be exploited and polluted, a decision made less startling perhaps given the rivers’ status as holy beings in the Hindu religion. However, on April 1, 2017, the same court recognized a group of Himalayan glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, meadows, and forests as “legal persons” in an effort to protect their well-being: “The rights of these entities shall be equivalent to the rights of human beings and any injury or harm caused to these bodies shall be treated as injury or harm caused to human beings.”21 These decisions followed an earlier action by the New Zealand Parliament to recognize the Whanganui River, known by the Māori as Te Awa Tupua, and “its tributaries and all its physical and metaphysical elements” as a “legal person.” Attorney-General Chris Finlayson said, “(It) will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.” He also explained that the local Māori iwi, or tribe, had been fighting about the rights concerning the river since the 1870s, adding that “this legislation recognizes the deep spiritual connection between the Whanganui iwi and its ancestral river.”22
If we recognize that the beings of the ecosystems we encounter are interwoven with our own human being, then the ethical stakes of practices like mountaintop removal are raised. Not only are we guilty through practices of this destructive sort of assaulting other beings that have intrinsic value and a right to exist which we can feel in our bodily coexistence with them; in addition, insofar as our own lives’ meaning and spiritual vitality are inseparable from our enmeshment with these ecosystems, mountaintop mining is also self-destructive to our humanity. Such practices destroy opportunities to experience felt depths of sense, meaning, and history. Mountaintop removal mining pulverizes our shared kinship with the world, severing us from an immemorial time that is foundational to our sense of existence, the world, and our place within it. The fate of mountaintops, in their dignity and wonder, is inseparable from the depth of meaning that we as humans can experience on this planet.
- See the Earthjustice website at http://earthjustice.org/features/campaigns/what-is-mountaintop-removal-mining; Appalachian Voices website at http://appvoices.org/end-mountaintop-removal/ecology.
- Mazis, Earthbodies: Rediscovering Our Planetary Senses (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002), 7–12.
- Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” in Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 17.
- Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 155.
- Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Primacy of Perception, trans. Carleton Dallery (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 186.
- As the Taoists would put it.
- Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1949), 252 and 255.
- This concept is found in writers and works as diverse as feminist Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not One, Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn’s The Sun My Heart, and the chaos theorists John Briggs and F. David Peat’s Turbulent Mirror.
- See my extended discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the “face” or “physiognomic sense” of all things in Merleau-Ponty and the Face of the World: Silence, Ethics, Imagination, and Poetic Ontology (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2016), 75–84.
- Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 267.
- Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York, NY: Humanities, 1962), 57.
- Ibid., 19
- Merleau-Ponty, Intuition and Passivity: Course Notes from the Collège de France, trans. Len Lawlor and Helen Massey (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 124.
- Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 130.
- Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 243.
- Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 70, and also The Visible and the Invisible, 194.
- Ibid., 267.
- See my latest book, Merleau-Ponty and the Face of the World. I propose that “felt solidarity” may be more essential to ethical behavior than formally articulated traditional codes of ethics.
- Johnson, Retrieval of the Beautiful: Thinking Through Merleau-Ponty’s Aesthetics (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 131.
- Ibid., 134.
- Agence France-Press, “Himalayan Glaciers Granted Status of ‘Living Entities,’” Phys.org, April 1, 2017, https://phys.org/news/2017-04-himalayan-glaciers-granted-status-entities.html#jCp.
- See Agence France-Press, “New Zealand River Recognised as ‘Legal Person,’” Phys.org, March 16, 2017, https://phys.org/news/2017-03-zealand-river-recognised-legal-person.html#jCp. Also, note that the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund website describes the Constitutional Court of Colombia’s decision in November 2016 to declare the Atrato River basin a living being with legal rights of protection of its well-being, https://celdf.org/2017/05/press-release-colombia-constitutional-court-finds-atrato-river-possesses-rights/.